Monday, March 30, 2015

Unfinished Business 6: The 4th Estate

By Bill Kraus

A crucial premise underlying what the founding fathers wrought was a well informed electorate. This presumed, without mandating it, a free flow of information from the government to those who elected and were paying them. Accessibility and responsiveness were a part of that presumption. A universal communication system manned by journalists with their more or less rigid adherence to the principles of journalism quickly morphed into what became known as the Fourth Estate.

The Fourth Estate had power because everyone read it, including the members of the other three estates who read it because they knew the people who put them in positions of power were reading it.

For most of our country’s 1st three centuries the print press was the fourth estate. Radio came along and we went there for breaking news. The print press survived radio. Television was radio with pictures and because it’s purpose was to deliver audiences to advertisers not news to viewers it didn't dislodge the print press either. But the internet has. Not because it’s better than radio or television, but because it cut off a crucial print press revenue stream, the want ads.

It also had the breaking news advantage of radio and television.

The net result has been, despite the best efforts of the print press to turn the internet into their own delivery system, a steadily shrinking print press and a role shift. The print press has taken over the role Time magazine took when radio came along. It expands and elaborates what everyone already knows to give the thorough story to the smaller audience that wants more than sound bites and flash cards.

The internet polished off what had been a long, slow suicidal course initiated by the once powerful journalist powers. In Wisconsin, the dominant Milwaukee Journal decided in the mid-1970s to stop home delivery to the entire state. They chose money over power. Now they have neither.

The Fourth Estate is being reworked, reinvented, replaced, reshaped. What will evolve is unknown and uncertain. Every new electronic phenomenon up to and including streaming has been heralded as the Lazarus of the fourth estate. None have made the grade yet.

What is known, however, is the “I read it in the paper” era is over.

What is needed is a replacement.

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